03/07/2012 03:46 EST | Updated 05/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Charges laid against man connected to ship carrying Tamil migrants to B.C.

VANCOUVER - Mounties have launched an international manhunt for the first person charged in connection with a ship that brought hundreds of Tamil migrants to Canada's West Coast a year and a half ago.

Thayakaran Markandu has been charged with organizing illegal entry into Canada, the RCMP announced Wednesday. The charge relates to the MV Sun Sea, which arrived in August 2010 carrying 492 Tamil migrants.

Markandu, who was born in 1972 according to court records, is currently believed to be living abroad, although Mounties haven't confirmed where, said Sgt. Duncan Pound.

"We believe he's not inside Canada, so we're working with our international partners to have the warrant executed in an effort to bring him to justice," Pound said in an interview.

"It's our expectation that once he has been located, we would then initiate an extradition process and pursue that, if possible."

An indictment filed in B.C. provincial court accuses Markandu of offences in the Juan de Fuca Strait off the B.C. coast, as well as in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand.

The indictment, which was sworn Monday and contains unproven allegations, claims Markandu "did knowingly organize, induce, aid or abet the coming into Canada of one or more persons who are not in the possession of a visa, passport or other document required by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act."

The Sun Sea arrived with 492 Tamils on board, including men, women and children. All made refugee claims, pointing to decades of violence wrought by a 26-year civil war in their home country of Sri Lanka.

The ship arrived a year after another vessel, the MV Ocean Lady, brought 76 Tamil migrants to B.C.'s shores.

As of January, three of the Sun Sea passengers had their refugee claims approved, according to the latest figures available from the Immigration and Refugee Board. Another 13 migrants had their claims withdrawn, either because of deportation orders or because the claimants withdrew their applications themselves, and five claims were abandoned.

The refugee board figures indicate 14 Sun Sea passengers had been ordered deported as of Jan. 20. There were 14 other cases in which the federal government argued migrants were ineligible to remain in Canada that had yet to be decided by the board.

The remaining refugee claims are expected to be decided in the coming months.

The Sun Sea and Ocean Lady incidents amplified the debate about what to do when migrants arrive in large numbers after paying human smugglers, with the federal Conservative government using the two cases to argue for tougher human smuggling and refugee laws.

The federal government was quick to suggest some of the passengers had connections to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a banned terrorist organization and separatist group that lost the civil war in 2009.

Passengers on both ships were accused of ties to the Tigers during hearings at the Immigration and Refugee Board. While none of those allegations were substantiated for passengers on the Ocean Lady, the Refugee and Immigration Board ordered a number of Sun Sea passengers deported for alleged war crimes or connections to the Tigers.

The federal Conservatives pointed to the arrivals to argue for tougher sentences for human smugglers, proposing legislation that would target operations that bring large numbers to Canada at once.

The proposed legislation, which was reintroduced in Parliament last month, would make it easier to detain migrants who arrive en masse and speed up hearings for people from counties considered "safe," including those in the European Union.

As soon as the RCMP announced the charge in the Sun Sea case on Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney were ready with a news release arguing in favour of the proposed legislation.

"The MV Sun Sea is a vivid example of this ongoing challenge," Toews said in the statement.

"Canada is a generous and compassionate country that welcomes newcomers. But no Canadian thinks it’s acceptable to abuse our immigration system for financial gain through the despicable crime of human smuggling."

Four men were charged last year in connection with the Ocean Lady.

Hamalraj Handasamy, Vignarajah Thevarajah, Francis Anthonimuthu Appulonappa and Jeyachandran Kanagarajah were charged with human smuggling. They were released on bail last year.